So, after seven years of anonymous posting on how to resolve the world’s most contentious issues, I will now engage in my greatest act of chutzpah to date: I will weigh in on college football.
Some people have asked why Congress has any role in this. Well, the BCS specifically and the NCAA generally are a monopoly. The NAIA is not a competitor with any meaning. To be precise, the NCAA is a monopoly and the BCS is a combination. For once in my life, I agree with Senator Hatch. You can read his letter on the subject here which has more of the antitrust law arguments in it.
Some people want a playoff. Some people have nostalgia for the old days, like me. I suppose there are even some people that like the BCS. I imagine those people are in charge of the football program at Notre Dame for the most part.
One of the main distinctions between American sports—with the glaring exception of College Football—is that all of its major championships are based on playoffs. This is simply untrue of all sports. The biggest sport in the world, soccer, does use a playoff format for its biggest event, the World Cup. But especially in the club world, championships are based on the best performance in the season. This is true of all of the most important soccer leagues including the Premiership.
This doesn’t mean those leagues don’t have playoffs. They do. They have a playoff championship, usually called the something Cup. Even in the US, where the MLS championship is based on a playoff format, the winners of the regular season pick up the “Supporters’ Shield,” and there is the U.S. Open Cup which not only involves MLS teams, but involves amateur teams. Conceivably (and this did happen in the years between the MLS and its predecessor) an amateur team could win the US Open Cup, and on that basis be invited to play for and win the CONCACAF club championship.
So, while there is an alternative model, American sports seem to show a preference for playoffs. Americans seem to prefer the clutch player to the one who simply has high statistics. We want to see the walk off come from behind home run in the ninth inning, or the hail mary pass. These moments are even more dramatic when the season and not just the game is on the line.
Soccer is an important comparison because it’s the only sport that tries to find a champion out of more than 30 or so teams in a league, like college football. It’s not a perfect model, because the rest of the world has different sporting values than we do.
The problem isn’t that we can’t have a playoff. It’s the conferences. The BCS conferences have created a self-sustaining cycle. They have a bigger name, so they leveraged that into the BCS system which makes it easier for them to get a BCS game which makes their recruiting easier, etc.
NCAA divisions are based on the number of scholarships the school offers in that particular sport. Yet this doesn’t exactly put all of the schools on an equal footing, does it? Here’s what I suggest. It’s radical.
Every school that is currently in Division I-A gets put into one of 12 regional divisions made up of 10 teams—we’ll have to add one more team, whatever.
The divisions will be further divided into classes 1 and 2. The initial seeding will be based on some kind of formula: revenue, fan-base surveys, ticket sales, etc. But at the end of the year, the top two teams from the class 2 divisions are promoted to the class 1 division and the two worst teams in the class 1 divisions are relegated to the class 2 division. Not permanently, but they have to earn their way back the next year. Class 2 teams can even play class 1 teams if they want and vice versa, but, just as now, it would have no impact on the division standing.
These divisions can have fixed territories, or be gerrymandered somewhat to honor historical rivalries, but they won’t be the same the old conferences. The champion of each class 1 division gets a playoff berth. The system could be designed to have 3 rounds and give byes, or to have 4 rounds and wildcards; you could even include one or two teams from the class 2 divisions if you wanted.
Imagine now if, for example, Boise State wins the WAC and then gets to play in the Pac-10 next year, but Washington State because it lost so badly, has to play in the WAC next year.
This means a playoff can be completed in 3 rounds, keeping athletics from totally overriding the academics, which I know is a concern of the NCAA.
Within a few years, this would all sort itself out and the better teams would be playing better teams (something discouraged by the current BCS system) more times during the year. And there would be no more teams going 12-0 wondering if they get a BCS berth let alone a shot at the championship just because they didn’t get a chance to play teams that people think are good.